The Clintons fight back, signaling a new phase in 2016 preparations

Former president Bill Clinton says Karl Rove’s suggestion that his wife, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, has brain damage is a reminder that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” (The Associated Press)

Amid all the speculation about her political future, Hillary Rodham Clinton has cast herself as a global icon tuning out the noise of domestic politics.

But this week, she and her husband have jumped into partisan combat. Under fire from Republicans over her record as secretary of state and her health, Hillary Clinton gave a robust defense Wednesday of her tour as the nation’s top diplomat. Bill Clinton reveled in mocking Karl Rove for his suggestion that Hillary Clinton may have suffered brain damage from a fall in late 2012, while a Clinton spokesman said Rove’s remarks revealed that Republicans are “scared of what she has to offer.”

The efforts to shore up Clinton’s reputation and address GOP criticism suggest that Clinton is moving into a new phase in preparing for a possible 2016 presidential campaign.

Next month, she will embark on a cross-country book tour that aides say is a precursor to hitting the midterm campaign trail this fall and that some Democratic insiders consider a trial run for a White House bid.

Addressing the Republican attacks on his wife, Bill Clinton predicted that they will intensify as she moves toward a run. “It’s just the beginning,” he said Wednesday, “and they’ll get better at it.”

Hillary Clinton is coming under new fire for her handling of the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya. House Republicans formed a select committee last week to investigate the assaults that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and said that Clinton’s handling of the crisis would be a central part of their inquiry.

Republicans in recent days also have questioned Clinton’s 2011 decision not to classify Boko Haram, the group responsible for the recent kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls, as a foreign terrorist organization.

And some Republicans have openly speculated about the 66-year-old’s physical and mental fitness for the Oval Office. Former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove questioned Clinton’s health last week and suggested that she may have suffered a “traumatic brain injury” in a fall two years ago.

Bill Clinton, appearing Wednesday at an economic policy forum at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, said his wife exercises weekly and is in better shape than he is. Referring to Rove’s remarks, Clinton chuckled and fired back with humor.

“First they said she faked her concussion, and now they say she’s auditioning for a part on ‘The Walking Dead,’ ” he said, referring to a television series about zombies. “If she does [have brain damage], then I must be in really tough shape because she’s still quicker than I am.”

Answering questions onstage from journalist Gwen Ifill of PBS, Clinton defended his wife on Benghazi. “Hillary did what she should have done,” he said. But he was unwilling to engage further. Pressed by Ifill, he said, “You just want to get me into a political fight and I’m not doing that.”

An hour earlier, Hillary Clinton addressed the pro-Israel American Jewish Committee just a mile away, where she defended the “hard choices” she made at the State Department. (She also was promoting her forthcoming memoir, “Hard Choices.”) Clinton detailed her diplomatic work to slow Iran’s nuclear development and her attempts to lay the groundwork for peace in the Middle East.

“When I left as secretary and passed the baton on to Secretary Kerry, we were positioned to really explore whether we had set the table well enough to see changes that were sufficient to meet our legitimate objections to Iran’s behavior and its future plans,” Clinton said, referring to her successor, John F. Kerry.

By day’s end, both Clintons appeared again in Washington — Hillary on a women’s and girl’s empowerment panel at the World Bank and Bill at a celebration for the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

On Thursday, Hillary Clinton will attend her first political event of the year, reuniting in New York with some of her biggest 2008 campaign donors to raise money for the congressional campaign of Marjorie Margolies, daughter Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. Bill Clinton appears in a campaign ad for Margolies that was released Wednesday.

One of the first clear signs of the Clintons’ reentry into partisan presidential politics came Tuesday, when a spokesman for Hillary Clinton responded to Rove’s medical analysis. Nick Merrill issued a long statement not only testifying to her health — “she’s 100 percent, period” — but also charging that Rove and other Republicans are “scared of what she has achieved and what she has to offer.”

Asked whether Clinton is still a stateswoman operating above the political fray, Republican presidential strategist Mark McKinnon wrote in an e-mail, “There is no ‘above the fray’ in politics anymore. There is only ‘the fray.’ ”

Stuart Stevens, who was chief strategist for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said he sees a risk of Clinton repeating history. She began the 2008 campaign “totally above the fray,” he said, but was dragged into a bruising and unsuccessful primary campaign with Barack Obama.

“I think the parallels of 2008 are pretty apt here,” Stevens said. “What started out as being a coronation ended up in an extraordinarily negative, tough race.”

Stevens noted that both Clintons made remarks in 2008 about Obama that were widely considered racially insensitive. “She started out as Queen Elizabeth and ended up like Lurleen Wallace, [former Alabama governor] George Wallace’s wife,” Stevens said.

On Wednesday in Washington, with Obama out of town for a couple of days, the Clintons touted their work in areas that probably would become part of a Clinton campaign agenda.

Bill Clinton highlighted his wife’s decades of work aiming to improve educational opportunities for low-income children as well as the country’s economic gains during his presidency.

Clinton, who has faced criticism that income inequality worsened on his watch in the 1990s, defended income growth during his term but acknowledged that the gap between the rich and the poor represents a significant problem.

“You can say, ‘Well, inequality has still increased,’ because the top 1 percent did better, but I don’t think there’s much you could do about that unless you want to start jailing people,” he said.

In her foreign policy remarks, Hillary Clinton bemoaned Washington’s gridlock and said, “I would like to see our own democracy work a little more smoothly in order to set a better example and to deal with our own problems here at home.”

Later, speaking at the World Bank about her work with the “No Ceilings” initiative, Clinton said she has become “impatient” with the lack of opportunities for women.

“I am increasingly impatient with leaders who willfully ignore the injustice that accompanies the subjugation of women and the upsides of change — for them and for their societies,” she said.

Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.

Zachary A. Goldfarb is a staff writer covering the White House, focusing on President Obama’s economic, financial and fiscal policy.
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